Critiquing the Press

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 24, 2008; 12:00 PM

Howard Kurtz has been The Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

Today's Column: The Final Days (Post, Nov. 24)

He was online Monday, Nov. 24 at noon ET to take your questions and comments.

A transcript follows

Media Backtalk transcripts archive


Washington, D.C.: What should the press and the public expect from a White House press secretary, and did Dana Perino come close to meeting those expectations? It seems to me from your column today that you see her primary job as protecting the president -- not leveling with the public about what's going on in the White House.

Howard Kurtz: I don't think that's a fair characterization. Most reporters I've talked to say Perino has been professional and helpful. Every press secretary has a dual responsibility -- to protect and defend the boss, and to provide accurate information to the public. Dee Dee Myers, Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart did that as aggressively as Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan, Tony Snow and Perino. Although I guess Scott later had second thoughts.


Anonymous: On today's "Fox and Friends" on Fox News, one of the hosts introduced a segment on Time magazine's bias for Obama by describing such bias as "disgusting." Does Fox really feel it did not favor McCain and conservative viewpoints in general?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know what's in the minds of the Fox hosts. That is the show that aired the unsubstantiated allegation that Obama attended a madrassah as a young boy. As for singling out Time, is that because the magazine depicted Obama as FDR? What about Newsweek likening him to Lincoln? Let's play fair here!


Energy policy?: We have not heard any good gossip, rumors, speculation, etc. on who might be named as secretary of energy. Or have I missed something?

Howard Kurtz: We have let you down. We have been so obsessed with Hillary that we have not delivered even the merest scuttlebutt about the Energy job.


Washington, D.C.: Why doesn't Bush want Perino to defend him? Is he OK with the public holding such a negative view of him and his administration? The Final Days (Post, Nov. 24)

Howard Kurtz: Obviously the president wants his press secretary to defend him in general. But Bush made a decision that he didn't want Perino responding to the slings and arrows of the presidential candidates so he wouldn't be drawn into the campaign. Perhaps Bush recognized that the more he was an issue, the more that would hurt McCain, who somehow couldn't find time in his schedule to appear with the president.


New York, N.Y. : I am sure you are getting a lot of questions about the Senator Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State parlor game (will she be offered the job and will she take it?). One angle that has been talked up by the pundits, chattering class and our own Washington Post is that some leaders in the Middle East would not take a woman as SOS seriously because of their "patriarchal" society. I disagree totally. What about SOS Rice or SOS Albright? Gender was never an issue with them as far as I am concerned. You could use the same argument with Latin American countries and machismo (alas President Kirchner of Argentina and President Bachelet) contradict this argument. Maybe in the 80's this would have been an issue but from Africa, Latin America, Europe, Eastern Asia and Israel woman are assuming leadership roles and changing cultural perceptions. Your thoughts?

Howard Kurtz: I've followed just about everything about Hillary's likely move to State and haven't seen anything about the gender question. I've seen articles and heard chatter about her relationship with Obama, Bill's role, her political future, her pro-Israel views, and on and on. The only question no one has had the guts to confront is, why do white men keep getting passed over for secretary of State??? There hasn't been one since Warren Christopher!


Spin From Above: Governor Sarah Palin responded to speculation that she might run for Ted Steven's Senate seat should he resign from it by stating that "My life is in God's hands. If He's got doors open for me, that I believe are in our state's best interests, the nation's best interests, I'm going to go through those doors."

God responded hours later by pulling Mark Begich ahead of Ted Stevens in the recount

Howard Kurtz: I think the voters of Alaska deserve the credit here. It's quite remarkable that Stevens came as close as he did, given that he'd just been convicted of seven felonies. As for Palin, she probably would have won that seat had Stevens won and been forced to resign. But that door, as she put it, did not open.


Anonymous: Did Sarah Palin really not know a Turkey was being slaughtered behind her the other day?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think so. Someone should have been fired for putting her in such an awful situation. Not exactly the ideal backdrop for a politician answering reporters' questions.


Red Oak, Iowa: Because of the amount advertising that the Big Three automakers do on television, does this impact the type of coverage that the television networks have on presenting the case for the bailout of the Big Three?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think so. I think some of the TV coverage has tilted somewhat toward a bailout or not adequately explained the pluses and minuses of GM, for example, going bankrupt. A federal bailout is not a panacea and would require the automakers to do some long-needed restructuring. But I don't think it has anything to do with the Chevy ads.


BCS: If college football adopts a playoff system, as President-elect Obama recently advocated, should the Republicans even bother fielding a candidate in 2012?

Howard Kurtz: That may not be a total slam-dunk, to switch sports metaphors. I read a piece the other day, I think on Slate, headlined "Obama's First Fumble." With even banking giants such as Citigroup needing federal bailouts, I'm not sure the president-elect should be spending much of his political capital on college football. (This came up in his "60 Minutes" interview, for those who missed it.)


Avon Park, Fla.: Do you think that Gwen Ifill or Andrea Mitchell would be great candidates to host Meet the Press? I think that it would be appropriate if a non-white male got that job.

Howard Kurtz: I think either one would do a fine job. Andrea already works at NBC, obviously, while Gwen is an alumnus now at PBS. But I think network executives are going to weigh lots of factors in making this choice because "Meet the Press" is such a lucrative franchise for NBC.


Dallas, Texas: President elect Obama stated that he was going to bring change to Washington. Please explain to me where is the change he is bringing? I have not heard the media speak about his appointees much other than saying how great they are. Hasn't anyone noticed that they are all former Clinton buddies? After all, he is even selecting his wife to be secretary of state.

I was really hoping that Obama truly would bring a change to our Capital. So far, I see more of the same. Wait that was suppose to be McCain.

Howard Kurtz: First of all, I say we give him at least two or three days in office before making judgments, rather than delivering a verdict during the transition. Second, he has only moved toward naming a few Cabinet members. Now I and others have noted the number of recycled Clintonites he is tapping so far, and it's fair to wonder how far he's going to go in that direction. But Obama needs Democrats with experience, and many of the top ones served at some point during the last Democratic administration (or were married to the president in charge). Bush certainly picked some veterans of previous GOP administrations, and his father picked some folks who had worked for Reagan and Nixon.


Arlington, Va.: Is it appropriate to have an above the fold picture of Santa Claus on the front page of the Sunday Post? I normally don't have much issues with the papers photo placement, but this appeared to be much more appropriate for inclusion within the Metro section (where the story was located). Surely there was something more relevant that could have been placed in such a high profile location.

Howard Kurtz: What, we missed an opportunity for another picture of boring politicians in suits? Santa was there not as a holiday feature but because The Post had written a story about a local mall's dumb move in firing a guy who had been a popular Santa for years. Mall officials were forced to rehire him as a direct result. So I view it as a triumph of crusading journalism.


Chicago, Ill.: Don't take the BCS stuff so seriously. He was asked a question and gave a substantive answer. Heaven forbid the President can speak coherently on a wide variety of subjects.

Howard Kurtz: Hint: I wasn't. Also, Barack can come off as a pretty serious guy (right now he's answering questions about the financial crisis and all the networks are taking it live). Nothing wrong with him popping off about sports and showing he has a passion shared by millions of Americans.


Washington, D.C.: Obama's distinction early on was that he didn't support the war and would be the better choice in getting America out of Iraq. Now that Hillary, who did vote for the war, is going to be Secretary of State, how is Obama going to explain this to everyone who would have voted Hillary were it not for her war vote?

Howard Kurtz: The same way he justified picking Joe Biden as vice president. Obama feels he was right about the war and that Hillary and other Democrats were wrong. But he now has to look at the next four years. Why should he automatically disqualify everyone who voted the other way in 2002? Keep in mind that if Hillary Clinton takes this job, as we now all expect, she will be staff--that is, her role will be to carry out the new president's policies.


Boston, Mass.: Please tell us your BCS answer was tongue-in-cheek. It seemed like a pretty stern rebuke for something so trifling. Or are you a closet poll & bowl system supporter (as I am)?

Howard Kurtz: I am agnostic on the question. I look forward to hearing the president-elect address whether the National League should be required to adopt the designated hitter.


New York, N.Y.: This question is unrelated to your column today on Dana Perino. It's about another woman in the media -- MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. I saw a lengthy story about her in this week's issue of Newsweek, one of the Washington Post companies. I couldn't help but notice that Newsweek also has a partnership with MSNBC, what looks like an online content-sharing partnership (next to the magazine tab there is an MSNBC tab, and on the network's site, Newsweek is a featured link). However, there is no mention of the partnership in the piece. Do you think they should have disclosed this relationship? When do you think a reporter is required to disclose a partnership? Thank you.

Howard Kurtz: It should have been mentioned. I should also be more vigilant in mentioning it in articles that are substantially about MSNBC, although the alliance is mainly on the dot-com side.


Re: Dallas: Well, change back to Clintonites is still change from 8 years of Bush! Because, you know, the '90s were so horrible. (As Carville says, "some anti-Clinton people were against the peace, others were against the prosperity.")

That said, I don't think hiring Clinton administration alumni necessarily means reverting to all the same policies. Obama is hiring people who know how the government operates, rather than a bunch of newbie's needing to learn on the job, but he still gets to drive the decision making.

Howard Kurtz: I agree. He won the election. Hillary, Rahm, Richardson and the rest will be working for him. And remember, they serve as the pleasure of the president.


Re: Energy: Actually, if you go to's lovely new Fed Page, they have the top picks listed for each cabinet position, including energy. Politics: Fed Page (Post, Nov. 24)

Howard Kurtz: Maybe one of those people will even get the job. reported Wednesday that Obama had chosen Penny Pritzker as Commerce secretary. The next morning, the Chicago businesswoman announced she was withdrawing from consideration.


Iraq and Hillary: Hillary has said, on several occasions, that if she had known then what she knows now, she would not have voted as she did. It shouldn't be tattooed between her shoulder blades.

Howard Kurtz: She has said that. She also refused to apologize for her vote, which many Democrats wanted her to do during the campaign. But she had plenty of company on the Democratic side. Obama, of course, was in the Illinois legislature then and did not have to vote.


State of Dyspepsia: Wasn't Obama's promised change referring to the Bush administration, not the rather successful Clinton administration?

Howard Kurtz: Actually, Obama seemed to include the Clinton administration on several occasions when he talked about breaking with the partisan baby-boomer battles of the past. He also said at one point that he wanted to be a transformative president like Reagan, pointedly excluding Clinton.


90s: The Clinton administration refused to address any issues in the 1990s and had the good sense to be out of office when terrorism and Enron hit the fan.

Howard Kurtz: ANY issues? That's funny, I seem to remember the Clinton administration passing NAFTA and welfare reform and balancing the budget.


Clinton OCD: Howie, what is it with the media's very weird obsession with everything Clinton. I and 60 percent of Americans traditionally see two people who are incredibly competent and do a lot of good things. You guys see two horrible creatures who are only in it for themselves and are plagued by scandal. The data exists ... the only Clinton scandals exist in the mind of the media (even the RNC has dropped that bone). The CGI is raising money for helping the world's poor, most of don't see the unseemly in that. So why are you guys so out of it?

Howard Kurtz: Two horrible creatures? I don't think even the most rabid Hillary supporter would say she was covered that way. And while Bill Clinton kept talking himself into trouble during the primaries, I'd say his post-presidential coverage, especially of the work he's been doing on AIDS and global poverty, has been positive.


So many questions: Any comment on the fact that Obama has been skipping church Sunday and playing basketball instead? Isn't this the exact opposite kind of message he should be sending? I feel the same about his smoking -- he should quit as an example to young people. After all the man has a mighty bully pulpit and there are some image things more important than his own desires. Do you agree ?

Howard Kurtz: It's been three weeks since he was elected. I'm willing to cut the guy a little slack.


Seattle, Wash.: On the Bush Press Secretaries, hasn't it seemed like their job was to deflect and deter journalists' inquiries, and to funnel them into 'anonymous' leaks like Scooter Libby. McClellan was out-of-the-loop, Tony Snow spent his time arguing bias with reporters and Perino is so clearly out of her depth.

Howard Kurtz: You're entitled to your view of Perino. Snow was a former talk show host and indeed loved to fence with the press. As for deflecting and deterring inquiries, every presidential spokesman does some of that. Mike McCurry turned it into a high art during the Clinton scandals, as I chronicled in my book Spin Cycle.


Oracle, N.M.: Howard : Is it possible the Obama team used the Hillary trial "balloon" as a way to buy some time while he gets his cabinet together? The press is chasing after that story so hard, is there a chance it was just a cynical move and that ole Bill's dealings will disqualify her anyway?

Howard Kurtz: I think at this point it's quite clear Hillary is going to get the job. I don't believe Obama would have dangled it if he wasn't serious about naming her. It is also entirely possible that Hillary's side first leaked word that she was being considered for State. Her friends were clearly leaking about her state of mind and the negotiations last week, seemingly every hour.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Has Obama actually named any cabinet member yet? Every day I see some story about how he has selected someone for this or that, but have yet to see what looks like an official announcement -- aside from the economic advisers this morning.

Can you people please just report when something actually does happen? You're news reporters, not meteorologists. Tell us what happens, not what you think will happen.

Howard Kurtz: He has named zero Cabinet members. Sometimes the speculation is out of control or just silly. But do you really want a press that reports something only when the government issues a press release? I sure don't. Should we have waited until the Bush administration acknowledged it was engaged in secret domestic surveillance? Keep in mind that for every leak, there is someone in politics or government who wants the information out.


Phoenix, Ariz.: Why is the press ignoring the fact that in the midst of the economic crisis, the current president has pretty much checked out. I mean hearing that he made a phone call or two from Peru to Paulson just doesn't reassure.

Howard Kurtz: Well, he appeared with Paulson this morning to talk about the Citigroup bailout, and the Treasury secretary who is leading the government's response works for him. So I don't believe "checked out" is a fair description.


Clancy, Mont.: Howie, When you had Mr. Kindler on your show, I wished you had asked him whether Dave Letterman's obvious bias in favor of Democrats wasn't having an effect on ratings, since his ratings have slipped quite a bit. What do you think? Hasn't it hurt Letterman's ratings?

Howard Kurtz: Well, I did ask Andy Kindler about Letterman taking McCain's head off during the campaign, and whether comedians should take a political stand. I have no idea whether it hurts Dave's ratings. Maybe the era of comedians seeming totally neutral is over.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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